Last month, the UT System Board of Regents accepted KUT’s proposed $6 million acquisition of KXBT, a radio station that currently plays oldies music. At first glance, the acquisition seems like a smart investment. It will expand content for NPR’s Austin station, KUT, allowing all of KUT’s music programming to be played on KXBT. No tuition money will be used, and students will supposedly benefit from more easily accessible internship opportunities. This interpretation, however, ignores the larger picture of what’s happening in media, which is that physical radio stations such as KUT may likely disappear in a matter of decades. This reality makes the $6 million purchase look a lot less appealing.
While KUT provides insightful and compelling news commentary, talk shows, and music programming, radio listenership has decreased among young people, and it will likely decrease even more in years to come.
Not everyone agrees with that conclusion.
Colin Sturrock, a Plan II junior and DJ of The Blues Specialty show on KVRX, defends the buyout. “The main clientele of radio are people like our parents. They’re still going to be around for the next 30 or 40 years,” he said. “If you’ve been listening to the radio all your life, you’re not just going to stop when you turn 70.”
UT Communications Professor Joseph Straubhaar is more ambivalent than Sturrock about radio’s future, but he doesn’t write the traditional radio model off entirely. Straubhaar says,“[With digital based content] they can stretch across the whole Internet. People over 30 still have to get used to that though.”
The problem with Sturrock’s defense is that his aging listeners will die in a couple of decades. The median age for NPR radio listeners is 55. Given average life expectancy, they have about 25 years left in them. Twenty-five years from now, the last thing UT students will need is experience in a field that will have become obsolete.
A more immediate threat to radio also exists. As of 2009, radio listeners were listening three fewer hours per week than they had in 2006. According to Inside Radio, as of 2007, radio numbers had declined to their lowest level since 1998. The steepest drop occurred in the teenage and young adult demographics, with listenership dropping by half between 2000 to 2010. These numbers aren’t surprising. With programs like Spotify, Tomahawk, Pandora, and iTunes that anticipate your musical preferences and allow you to pick your own music, something that tells you what to listen to regardless of your taste seems oppressive. KUT has its own set of statistics to justify the acquisition. In an interview with the Texan, Stewart Vanderwilt, director of KUT, cited an Arbitron RADAR data study, a quarterly set of radio listenership statistics, which found that “Radio consistently reaches 92 percent to 96 percent of virtually every demographic group.”
There are two problems with this finding: Reach doesn’t accurately measure the extent to which these audiences use radio, and RADAR statistics are only accurate for a brief moment in time. Using RADAR numbers to evaluate radio growth is akin to reviewing a movie based on a single frame of the film. What will happen to physical radio may not be apparent in the RADAR numbers, but the fact that radio listenership among young adults between 2000 and 2010 dropped by half paints a grim picture that doesn’t bode well for KUT’s future as a physical radio station.
Radio stations, especially ones that provide unique programming, probably won’t die, but the need for physical radio will be greatly diminished, leaving KUT with a worthless and unsellable asset. It would be in the best interests of KUT, UT, and UT students to allocate money instead to more Internet-based radio alternatives. That’s where the future of radio is, and that’s where the future jobs are for students interested in radio.
Vanderwilt and KUT are doing a good job of preparing for this future through their expansion into digital services.
“We have a portfolio strategy to this,” Vanderwilt said. “Radio is one part of a multimedia strategy. The thing that gets artists into our studio is the live broadcast, but that live radio broadcast lives on in the YouTube video that was shot here.”
Consider the acquisition of KXBT. The station will be used exclusively for music programming. KUT often plays less well-known music. Shows like Austin Music Minute, Texas Music Matters and Song of the Day introduce listeners to lesser known acts. Listeners of these shows are also the most enthusiastic about discovering music on the Internet.
“I think that money could be a lot better spent on trying to develop a new Internet platform,” said Marvin Barksdale, entertainment consultant and founder of Hydroshare, a digital distribution company. “The data from the web is so much deeper than the data you can get through your radio. Data is so important in how we make our business decisions.”
Given that Internet-based advertising more effectively delivers advertising tailored to a listener’s tastes, and thereby it’s more valuable, the KBXT acquisition was a mistake because physical radio stations will be replaced by digital forms and digital listeners in a matter of decades.
Breland is a Plan II junior from Houston.